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Commercial space station developers seek clarity on regulations

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WASHINGTON — Companies working on commercial space stations intended to succeed the International Space Station say they need more clarity from the federal government on who will regulate them and how.

During panel discussions at the Beyond Earth Symposium here Oct. 13, representatives of several of the companies working on commercial space stations said they have to deal with an “alphabet soup” of agencies, none of which today have the authority to provide oversight of their operations as required under the Outer Space Treaty.

“We need to figure these things out now so that we don’t have problematic issues that slow down the engineering and the scientific and commercial progress in the future,” said Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire Space, which is a partner on the Orbital Reef commercial space station concept. “We need to have predictability, we need to have clarity and we need to have certainty in terms of the regulatory structure.”

No federal agency today has the authority to provide the authorization and continuing supervision of commercial space stations required under Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty. Similar gaps in authority exist for other emerging commercial space fields, like satellite servicing and lunar landers.

“We have to be careful of the absolute alphabet soup of agencies that we have to go to conduct our operations,” he said. They include the Federal Communications Commission for communications licenses, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for remote sensing licenses and the Federal Aviation Administration for launch licenses and payload reviews. Those reviews can involve other agencies, like the Commerce and Defense Departments.

“It’s extraordinarily challenging,” he said. “It’s vital that we consolidate and simplify not only because it makes it easier on the private sector, it will also result in better safety and better innovation.”

Those issues are growing larger as the companies make progress towards first launches of space station elements, although with some schedule slips. Mary Lynne Dittmar, chief government and external relations officer at Axiom Space, said her company now plans to launch its first commercial module to be installed on the ISS in late 2025, about a year later than previously planned. She said the company just “rebaselined” that schedule as it goes through a critical design review of the module. A second module, a clone of the first, would follow in six to eight months.

Asked what regulatory changes were required to enable Axiom’s commercial space station and others, she noted many issues are interconnected. A key issue, though, is mission authorization. “I want to understand how it is that’s going to be framed, where that’s going to sit, because there are a lot of other issues that tie directly to it.”

Gold said that mission authorization includes figuring out how to do the “continuing supervision” required by Article 6. He called for a “self-certification” approach for that. “We’re in the driver’s seat and understand the technology more than anyone, so it’s very important that, from a regulatory perspective, the private sector should be on the front lines of delivering that information to the government,” he said.

There is no shortage of concepts for how to carry out mission authorization. George Nield, former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, suggested placing it within the Department of Transportation.

“My recommendation is that we take this opportunity to recognize spaceflight as a mode of transportation, just like highways, railways, maritime, aviation and pipelines, and create a Bureau of Commercial Space Transportation under the U.S. Department of Transportation,” he said. “That could be a one-stop shop for regulating space.”

In the near term, simply having a checklist of agencies to deal with for mission authorization would be helpful, said Eric Stallmer, executive vice president of government affairs and public policy at Voyager Space, which is working on its Starlab commercial space station. “It’s something we all could follow,” he said.

“The sky is not falling yet,” said Erika Wagner, senior director for emerging space markets at Blue Origin, a lead partner on Orbital Reef, noting the success of private astronaut missions like Inspiration4 and Ax-1. “The question is, how do we manage that uncertainty and the risk that comes with not having a clear path.”

There are other regulatory issues beyond mission authorization for commercial space station developers to grapple with. Gold noted that the ISS enjoys exceptions and prioritizations for export control regulations that commercial space stations will need.

Commercial space stations may also pose challenges for workplace safety and related regulations. Wagner noted that NASA uses career radiation limits for its astronauts, while terrestrial industries have annual radiation limits. “That doesn’t work very well if you’re going to build a cadre of folks that are working privately on a space station.”

Those visiting commercial space stations, either as tourists or researchers, will expect some minimum standard of care to ensure their safety, said Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientific officer for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at the Baylor College of Medicine. It may be too early, though, to have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the branch of the Department of Labor that regulates workplace safety, get involved.

“I would not advocate for OSHA playing a role in this, but I think there are best practices that come out of it that could develop into something that benefits any of the providers,” she said, adding that companies will have an incentive to make sure customers of commercial stations have a good experience. “If you want good word of mouth, I suggest you work really hard at that.”

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